The Secret History of: Matroyshka dolls
How nested dolls emigrated from China through Japan to Russia
NESTED MATRYOSHKA DOLLS ARE popularly considered to be as Russian as croissants are French, clogs are Dutch or stiff upper lips are English. In fact, these enigmatic little artworks have quite an international background. The original idea for nested objects was born in China during the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD). Carpenters made boxes inside boxes, to symbolise ingenuity. Eight-hundred years later, the boxes had evolved into dolls – the smallest of which was so diddly it held just one grain of rice. The dolls migrated to Japan, where they were used to depict the Japanese Seven Lucky Gods. In the late 19th century, a Russian named Savva Mamontov set up an artists’ colony in his homeland, with the aim of strengthening and promoting Russian national folk art and crafts. It’s believed the group were inspired by the Japanese dolls to create their own version based on rural life in Russia. The first was created by Sergei Malyutin; he enlisted a woodworker named Zvyozdochkin to carve the dolls, which Malyutin painted. They called them ‘Matryoshka’, from the Latin root for ‘mother’, and dressed them in sarafans (traditional maternal smocks) and headscarves: the dolls thus became images of Russian motherhood, fertility and plenty. They were shown at the World Fair in Paris in 1900, and were an immediate hit. In the 1980s, new-found freedom of expression meant Russian leaders could be made into Matryoshka. The largest was usually the then head of state Mikhail Gorbachev – who, in his doll form, was fondly known as ‘Gorby’.
The world record for the most numerous set of Matr yoshka dolls is a 51- piece set painted by Youlia Bereznitskaia, made in 2003. The biggest doll is over half a metre tall. Traditionally, only wood from a fine - grained linden tree can be used to car ve a Matr yoshka. It has to be cured for between one and three years and then cut into blocks. The best of those are selected for lathing. The painting technique used for Matr yoshka is called ‘Khokhloma’, a customar y style of Russian wood painting. It ’s all about leaves, berries and petals, painted freely in vibrant colours.